Four issues SUPRA should address in 2017

The Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) is relatively unknown on campus in comparison to student body heavyweights like the Student Representative Council (SRC) and the University of Sydney Union (USU).

Despite its quiet reputation, SUPRA is no stranger to controversy.

Tim Scriven, President of SUPRA in 2015, resigned due to communication issues within the SUPRA executive.

In 2013, the Honi Soit editorial team penned an open letter to SUPRA asking them to be more transparent, after the resignation of President Angelus Morningstar for financial regulations breach.

SUPRA also takes a rather large chunk from our Student Services and Amenities (SSAF) fees at $1 375 000 in 2016.

The student representative role of SUPRA President is one of the highest paid of its kind on campus, raking in $47, 472 in 2015.

The organisation is more service-based than other student bodies. SUPRA has been instrumental in providing support to international students, caseworkers and also provides staff support to postgraduate students. More recently, they have been highly involved in the campaign to save the Sydney College of Arts.

The SUPRA council and executive have been at the centre of several controversies in the past few years. If SUPRA wishes to continue into 2017 with a clean slate, there are several areas in which students are expecting reform. Here are the four main areas in which SUPRA has received the most heat:

1.    MONEY MISHAP

Mariam Mohammed had been elected into the SUPRA women’s officer position for only a month when she found out her stipend of $1028 had already been claimed.

At a prior SUPRA meeting, it was voted by the council that she would split the stipend and hours for a month between herself and the outgoing women’s officer and 2015 President, Kylee Hartman-Warren

The council decided to split the stipend on the basis of Mohammad’s argument that a clause in the Constitution allows elected equity officers (councillors who represent certain marginalised groups) to immediately assume the portfolio from the acting officer.

In SUPRA, payment to councillors is meticulous. Each hour spent working is logged in and stipends are approved by the council in their monthly meetings.

“It’s public money, we are accountable for it,” Mohammed said. So after she realised her stipend had all be claimed, she went to council.

During this meeting, motions were passed to move onto other agenda items before addressing this issue. Her concern was pushed to the end of the three-hour long council meeting.

Hartman-Warren’s co-President, Christian Jones, overturned the decision to pay Mohammed for her work, deeming it “unconstitutional” as Mohammed was not a councillor at the time - despite being elected by the equity office. Jones claimed he made an independent decision in his capacity as President as it is his “role to interpret the Constitution”.

When Hartman-Warren was contacted for comment, she said these events occurred due to differing interpretations of the Constitution. She echoed Jones, who said that during the time of the incident, Mohammed was not an official councillor and so could not hold the women’s officer position.

“Unfortunately it appears that this was not conveyed to Mariam who also did portfolio work in this period,” Hartman-Warren said.  

“Why do we even have a council if the council doesn’t even have the power to make a decision and any decision the council makes can be overturned by someone else if they so feel like it?” Mohammed said.

“If that is how SUPRA operates, then it should just give up the façade of the council of 29 people all of whom have an equal say,” she said.

Hartman-Warren paid back Mohammed’s half of the stipend in instalments over a period of a few months.

2.    MUDDLED MINUTES

Complaints have arisen regarding the accuracy of SUPRA council meeting minutes which, a few councillors claim, omit important information or mistakenly equalise the voices present in the discussion.

Earlier this semester, Pulp Media reported on SUPRA funding a domestic student’s attendance at an international student conference despite vocal protests against this decision.

In a heated discussion on this incident in a council meeting in September, the council passed a motion specifying the amount of time each councillor could state their case.

The International Student Officer in favour of the domestic student attending the conference, was given six and a half minutes to speak, whereas the councillor from an opposing view was given four and a half.

The minutes stated that both were given five minutes to speak.

Nonetheless, the meeting minutes that contained these incorrect details were passed by the council in their next meeting.

The current secretaries of the SUPRA council clarified that their intention is always to put forth “reliable minutes”. Council meeting minutes are sent a few days before meetings for councillors to comment on and make according amendments.

It has been claimed that meetings have been hard to follow due to the length and disputes present during them.

SUPRA President Tom Greenwell has said council meetings can be “tense”.

“The reason they are tense are usually contextually appropriate,” he said.

Eisha*, a SUPRA councillor in 2014 and 2015, said council meetings were a “big fight”.

“There was no freedom and democracy for talking - so they could easily move a procedure and shut you up,” Eisha said.

“I think it’s a shame we get students’ money to get paid to fight with each other”.

3.    EXCLUSIVE ELECTIONS

Eisha believes the SUPRA elections have changed drastically: “it’s not democratic at all”.

“Before the election, you are a leader, a political person or whatever, you gather all your friends, you put their name, you get enough people onto SUPRA,” Eisha said. “Then you have enough people to do whatever you want – which is very very wrong.”

The incredible amount of money allocated to SUPRA does not match its election numbers. While the President of the SRC received around 2133 votes to win her $37 000 a year position. This year’s SUPRA President received fewer than 20 votes to score his seat on council, and even fewer to be elected President and granted his $47 472 position.

One of the Presidents in 2015 received zero votes, assuming the position after the resignation of the former President.

The discrepancy here is that although thousands of students directly elect their SRC President, a small number of postgraduates (194 students, which is under 5% of the SRC voting base) have a say in who is elected onto SUPRA council.

Some former councillors have suggested that the changing culture of SUPRA is due to the flow of undergraduate students entering into SUPRA.

President Tom Greenwell said that SUPRA’s new demographics have resulted in “objectionable” outcomes and have “change[d] what is considered permissible behaviour.”

Eisha described SUPRA and student politics at Sydney University as a “nursery ground for the leaders of tomorrow”.

4. SYSTEMATIC SILENCING 

Fatima Rauf, like Mariam, has said that her time on council was marred by systematic oppression.

“In the form of speaking over [people of colour], pitting them against each other in the means to get what you want,” the 2015 co-Education Officer said. “The power stays within, at least for the past few years, the white majority.”

“Numerous people of colour have felt like there was systematic racism within SUPRA - that it’s not always visible but it’s there,” she said.

International Student Officer Dhaval Shukla commented that the people of colour on council are “very independent” and “make sure our voices get heard”.

“I don’t feel like anything of that sort has happened at SUPRA,” Shukla said.

There are numerous cultural competency workshops that are offered to councillors throughout the year. Only seven out of the 29 Councillors have attended these seminars so far.

WRAPPING UP

SUPRA’s smaller presence at Sydney University is not a reflection of the sheer volume of its constituents. Postgraduate students are a large and growing force at the University – and quite vulnerable too, with international students making a sizeable portion of the demographic.

Tangible evidence of racism and bullying is difficult to pinpoint, and even harder to identify in the minutes. Nonetheless, many previous councillors from varying years are quick to testify to it.

Communication problems have also stained SUPRA’s history between its executive and councillors - an issue still relevant in this year’s council.

With a controversial history and tense body, there is no doubt that SUPRA is a council to keep an eye on.

*Identity changed

Pulp Editors